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Featured Story

Finding the Right Kind of Therapy
image by Terrence Taylor
Finding the Right Kind of Therapy

My mother sent me to my first therapist when I was 13 years old, after she saw cutting scars on my arms. I’d been cutting to soothe my own anger and also to have something I could control. I was sick of taking care of my mother’s two young children by a man who was mean and critical of me. My relationship with my mother, never very good, got worse after she got together with this guy.

At first I felt guilty going to therapy, because my mother had to take off work to take me. I didn’t want to be a burden, but I was also hurt that my mom didn’t seem genuinely interested in helping me stop. She’d stare at me while shaking her head as if she was disgusted. She asked me, “What’s wrong with you?” but she never sat down with me to ask why I did it or how she could help me. I felt like she sent me to therapy out of fear that I’d kill myself.

The therapist was some sort of child psychologist. I don’t remember her name, but I always called her “Miss” anyway. My mother must have explained that I was cutting myself because that’s the topic she jumped to in the first visit. Her tiny office was full of children’s chairs and dollhouses, which made me uncomfortable. At 13, I must have been her oldest client. Her desk was in a corner, buried beneath files. We’d sit in cushy chairs facing each other. She was tiny, with lots of wrinkles.

She asked me if I hurt myself, and how often. I didn’t see the point in hiding anything from her when we both knew why I was there. But I didn’t want to talk because I was already uncomfortable, so we spent the time staring at each other. I felt uncomfortable being asked these questions by a stranger when it seemed like my mother should have asked them.

No Relief

Eventually we’d spend the hour-long sessions with me lifting my sleeve and going over my new cuts. When I did know why I’d cut—for example, if I’d failed a test—I’d tell her. She’d usually say, “Now, were you that upset that you just had to hurt yourself?” She’d look at me as if I was strange and like the thing that upset me was no big deal. Her voice seemed mocking, and that made me more self-conscious. She didn’t help me reflect on why I was cutting and how I could control my anger better.

I had expected some sort of moment of relief. Because my mother kept saying something was wrong with me, part of me had begun to believe her and to believe that the therapist had the cure. I expected therapy to help make me uninterested in cutting myself, like rehab. It didn’t work, and I stopped going after two months.

Once my mother found out that the therapy didn’t “cure” me, she’d come into my room at night and take off my clothes to check me for scars. I let that happen a couple of times, then yelled at her that I needed privacy, and that showing her my old marks wasn’t going to stop me from making new ones.

Then she just stopped. Nearly a year after that, she and I got into a fight big enough that the police came and I went into foster care.

Into Care

Once I entered care I was required to attend therapy, both individual sessions and joint sessions with my mother. Because they weren’t court-ordered for her, my mother didn’t go. As she kindly said, “Therapy is for crazy people and there’s nothing wrong with me.”

The therapist given to me was a young woman who was very chipper and smiled a bit too much for me. I don’t like people who smile often. It seems like they’re trying to convince me that they’re happier than me, and it makes me uncomfortable. I was secretly delighted when she told me after a few weeks that she was moving to the Midwest.

The new therapist was older and seemed a bit condescending. I felt as if she couldn’t relate to me. She began prodding about how and why my mother and I weren’t close. She had read the files that the foster care agency provided to her, and those files made me feel that there was no way to get her to see my side of the story. I shut down completely and we’d just sit there. She didn’t even seem to be interested in making me more comfortable around her.

After a few months in care I wasn’t cutting myself half as often as I used to, mainly because I had run out of supplies and I was sleeping in a room with four other girls. It didn’t leave me much privacy. When I had the chance, I’d cut if I got home from school early enough, or with a razor in the shower.

Around the same time I started helping out in the office of my agency, an intern began working there. As a soon-to-be therapist herself, she worked with a few youth one-on-one in the agency’s office. I had heard about her from some other teens, who mentioned that she was really cool and down-to-earth. Praise for any adult staff was rare among the youth from my agency. When I heard about a weekly girls group that she organized, I started to attend.

There for Each Other

The group seemed really cheesy at first, a bunch of girls talking about boys or complaining about their foster parents, but they ordered pizza and hot wings every time, so I was in. There were just a few of us at first: the therapist, two other girls, and me. Soon the agency assistant director joined.

Sometimes we’d play a card game that had random questions. Most of them were moral or philosophical; a few were personal. This helped us get to know each other better, but once we warmed up to each other we’d skip the cards and go around and say what the best and worst parts of our week were.

Sometimes the facilitators would open the session with a specific question and we’d base the entire hour on our feelings on that. It felt good to be able to discuss things in a group setting, and it felt sort of safe because we signed papers stating that what was mentioned in the group stayed there.

I was happy to have girls to discuss things with. I hadn’t told many of my friends that I was even in care: I said I had moved to an aunt’s house. It helped to be in a group that met consistently with people who knew and understood my circumstances. Sometimes one person’s issue would take precedence, and we’d all work together toward a solution, or at least a way to make the person feel better. By the end of each session everyone was smiling and laughing, even the people who’d been brought to tears by sharing the week’s experiences.

I was having so much fun in the group. It only took about a month for everyone to open up to each other. It felt good to help everybody else out, and their stories reminded me that things could be worse. . .

[read more]

 
 

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